Philippe Claudel's "I've Loved You So Long" (2008) tells a tragic story of a woman, without inhabiting a hint of melodrama. Kristin Scott Thomas ("English Teacher", "Gosford Park"), with red-lidded eyes plays the central character, whose transition has been so subtle it's impossible to point to where or how it happens scene by scene. The protagonist's past is used as an element of mystery. The curtain of mystery slowly reveals us to the central tragedy, which might make us connected and enthralled.
Juliette (Scott Thomas) nervously smokes, sitting at an empty table in airport lounge. She looks drained, physically as well as spiritually. Minutes later, a woman arrives to take her home. The woman is her younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), with whom she is reuniting after 15 years. Lea, with a sense of love invites Juliette to live with her. Lea is a university professor and a mother of two adopted Vietnamese girls. Her husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) remains polite to Juliette, but has good reasons to be uncertain. Juliette finds a little solace in the company of Luc's elderly father (Jean-Claude Arnaud) -- a stroke victim, who lives among his books.
When Lea's eldest daughter confronts Juliette about her sudden appearance, she is quickly answered by Lea that she’s “been away for a long time, and in England.” 30 minutes into the movie, we hear the word "prison", and we know that all these awkward euphemisms about long trips are just excuses, since there's no doubt that, prison is where Juliette has been. Juliette's parole officer, Captain Faure (Frederic Pierrot) befriends her, talks about his loneliness and helps to find her a job.
One day she goes for a job interview. The employer asks the reason behind her fifteen year long sentence. Juliette answers him coldly that she has murdered her six-year old son. The reason behind her sister's institutionalization has caused Lea to decide never to bring children into the world. Lea was a teenager when her sister was sent to prison. Even though, their parents have abandoned Juliette, Lea is determined to make their relationship work. The movie is mostly about rebuilding emotional ties to start a new life. The sisters' relationship remains pivotal, as they remain magnetized yet wary of digging too deeply. Throughout this entire ordeal, a question will nag in our minds: Why did she do that horrible thing and remained silent during the trial, offering no defense?
Director Phillipe Claudel, an university professor has made his directorial debut with "I've Loved You So Long." He has also written the script and his first-hand knowledge of the prison system is derived from his voluntary position as an English teacher in a French penitentiary for 10 years. Claudel's characters neatly fit together in the movie and even the tender scene of Juliette kissing her sleeping niece becomes just another emotional happening. Claudel gives an unusual and rare depth for his woman protagonist and her world is filled with details, which can come only from a novelist's fertile imagination. The director starts the movie with a chilly, beige palette in the airport lounge and slowly warms as Juliette reconnects and rediscovers her life.
Elsa, as the non-judgmental sister radiates sympathy. Her performance might be overlooked but it is her emotional outbursts and wavering gestures makes Scott Thomas’s stillness so compelling. The supporting performances by Arnaud -- the eloquent grandfather, Laurent Grevill-- the gentle teacher who gives Juliette a compassionate gaze, and Pierrot -- a parole officer with romantic dream, hopeless life -- are all as formidable as the performance of central characters.
"I've Loved You So Long" moves slowly like a glacier and demands lot of patience. Ultimately, the film ends in an uplifting manner, inciting a new life of hope and possibility. A mature character study, which deserves the attention of anyone who appreciates quality cinema.
I've Loved You So Long -- IMDb